Project: Narrative – Research on Semiotics


Exercise: The Americans by Robert Frank

1. I didn’t find it easy to understand this collection of images at first. Having read the book, I also researched and read the following insights.

  • From the Context and Narrative book I read that the book comprised 4 sections, each one starting with an image of the American flag. Short offers Sarah Greenough’s explanation that the book is “generally considered to be the single most important book of photographs since WW2” and the four sections challenged different aspects of American post war identity.
  • In his Guardian article in 2009, Sean O’Hagan doesn’t really explain why it is so important, just that it was, in Paris 1958 and USA in 1959. Even Frank himself seems uncertain, talking to O’Hagan, “People want to know so much….. All the time, this wanting to know. Where does it lead? Nowhere.”
  • John Szarkowski wrote; “The pictures took us by ambush(?) then…He established a new iconography for contemporary America comprised of bits of bus depots, lunch counters, strip developments, empty spaces, cars and unknowable faces.”
  • Gerry Badger says the book is “pessimistic with jukeboxes like alters, death, crosses and cars like coffins”

So the book is important because it was a new way of looking at the country which had never been done on such an extensive scale before. I managed to find  five symbols but my understanding of them is a bit sketchy (this may be down to the age of collection, over 50 years has elapsed since its publication so it is hardly contemporary). I managed to identify the four sections but the theme for the sections was not obvious. I couldn’t identify a unifying idea for any of them.

I found at least five symbols: some, like the US flag, used more than once and in different ways. In the first example Parade, Hoboken New Jersey for me it symbolises the perception I have that the American people tend to hide behind their flag and have a tendency not to question their government’s actions, especially with regard to foreign policy.

The jukebox as an altar is an interesting idea. Again it appears several times and in Candy Store, New York City a group of  teenagers are gathered around a particularly ornate example as acolytes of the emerging “Pop Culture” of the time.

A photograph simply entitled Los Angeles shows a view of a street with a single figure walking left to right uphill on a sidewalk below a large neon arrow also pointing to the right. Could this be Frank’s  thought on the American political direction at that time?

There is no doubt that Frank had picked up on the importance of the motor car in American society. There is an accumulation of images the automobile, ubiquitous as it is. Gerry Badger’s comment about the motor car as a coffin may have come from  Covered car – Long Beach, California juxtaposed as it is with the following image which appears to show the covered victims of a Car accident – US 66, between Winslow and Flagstaff Arizona.

Crosses are also shown in many of the photographs. In Beaufort, South Carolina a black woman is sitting outside, perhaps on the roadside verge below a ridge on which is a tall cross shape. It may be a telephone pole but I can see no wires. The woman is looking to her left and smiling, Beyond the  cross a watery sun hovers above the horizon. To me, this cross could be a sign of hope or redemption.

2. From Jack Kerouac’s introduction I have picked these symbolic references which were really about the words that he uses to describe the photographs. I picked up the symbolism from his interpretations.

….the picture of a chair in some cafe with the sun coming in the window and setting the chair in a holy halo… Cafe – Beaufort, South Carolina

….lying on his satin pillow in the tremendous fame of death…. Funeral St Helena, South Carolina

…. the sweet little white baby in the black nurses arms, both of them bemused in heaven…. Charleston South Carolina

….union boss, fat as Nero and eager a Caesar… Convention Hall Chicago

…..madman resting under a American flag canopy in old busted car seat…. Backyard, Venice West, California

Long shot of night road arrowing forlornly into immensities …. US 28 New Mexico

Having had a chance to look closely at this book, the 83 photographs seem to leave as many questions open as answered. Without the context of the period in time or the intimate knowledge of the nation (I was at primary school during this period and all that American meant to me was Popeye, The Lone Ranger and Davy Crockett) It is difficult to separate the iconic nature of the images which have formed my perception of the USA (photographically speaking) from the reality. We live in a world which runs against a media backdrop of the US, with TV, film, news and global branding that is inescapable. I’ve not been to the USA but I wonder if this manufactured experience has any connection to lives lead by US citizens today?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s